Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Indian Vibes 1: Luke warm in Ooty

It all seemed like such a good idea at the time. Skinful of Ale, sit through Slumdog, wistful memories of being there as a child - and plenty of travel shows on the box - with the Clarkson trio galavanting across Indochina on motorbikes. I mean, to a chap-about-the-empire travelling around the sub continent ought to be child's play.
So with heady dreams of walking the trail of the mutiny and chuffing steam trains, punkah-wallahs and palanquins, Dear Northerner and I strolled into the Leeds branch of a well known flight brokerage and bought ourselves a couple of return flights. Into Bombay and back home from Madras.

There are many tales of this trip - all quality blog fodder so I am shall reminisce of them from time to time to share with my readers - and I hope both find it entertaining.

The South of the Sub-c appealed to us both. I could swelter in linen suits and a pith helmet while DN wafted in and out of scented bazaars regaling herself in Ill Fitting Ethnic clothing and acquiring a taste for curry a life in Leedshire inexplicably deprived her.

We had been in the true tropics for about a week and were plotting the break-out into the ghats. The brochures all waxed lyrical about cardamon scented groves and chirpy tea stalls - but after a week away from the more cosmopolitan Bombay the image had been corroded away into the filthy grime that is, frankly, the third world.
As both in our 40s, and reasonably well travelled, the sort of gaffs that would appeal to the average wide-eyed gapper or earnest Guardian reading teacher desperate-to-prove-how-down-they-are-with-the-desperately-poor (Ill fitting ethnic clothing again) would certainly not do. No sharing of rooms in railway retiring rooms - inside loos a must unless in some tree house or boat and a source of bottled water or a container I could sterilise was a must.
This part of the world does back-packer or four star - not a lot in between.
So we had abandoned ideas of strolling into towns and finding clean and tidy accommodation and had to do some serious planning in Ernakulum.
Our destination was Ootacumund - Ooty for short. Weeks poring over the guide books had told us of a fine hills station with classical architecture, pleasant parks and lakes and the like. All sounded a bit like Sussex in the tropics.

The problem was getting there. With Christmas fast upon us we had a reservation in the hills and we really had to get there.

Ernakulum station dealt us the sort of arranging one has to make with the lesser spotted station guard in Penge we found - except rather than sullen ignorance, the fellows here are only too eager to please. They will assess you for what you want and tell you precisely what they have calculated you wish to hear - with no relevance to mere reality. Which is why buying a train ticket in India is worse than getting your name off the Reader's digest mailing list.

Desperate questioning and refusing to accept the first head waggling answer giving to us by railway staff revealed a new horror to add to the amoebic discomfort.
Our route to Ooty was not there.
Ceased to be - Doctor Beeching's revenge on the empire and all that.

The rains had come and washed away the railway and the fast coach route to the station.
No steam trains for us. No canteen bearing char-wallahs to while away the hours bartering with.
We had to negotiate a way from Ernakulum via Munnar across Via the road-head at Coimbatore to Ooty itself.

I shall share with you the delights of Munnar another time - suffice to say what lay ahead was not the genteel rail journey to the junction across into the Ghats and across the nature reserve and finally up to our end destination but 300km across the most dangerous roads in the world.

The last 90km was forecast to take 4 hours with the roads open. More as we couldn't go the direct route.

So after a five hour drive to Coimbatore (losing camera on the way - another story) we sound ourselves at the rat infested sewage spotted eastern depot in Coimbatore looking for an Ooty bus.
The journey may have cost us 50p each but the ramshackle vehicle and bus driver urinating against the wheel said we may be getting value for money.

Oh how us mighty have fallen!

However we took heart from how they drove. Buses in India are notoriously dangerous - mostly as their drivers drive extremely fast. They over-take on blind bends and race each other in the face of oncoming traffic fearlessly.
It's only 90 odd K we said - surely we will be ok.....!

The bus was busy - DN and I were separated. A fruit seller cam about selling sliced pineapples - a sure source of worms but we were hot, and thirsty. I chanced it having already suffered at the hands of Shiva's Revenge and therefore reckoned I was used to it. Two minutes later fruit wallah is back demanding more money.
I damned his impudence and sent him on his way. Blasted wallahs cant be trusted.
He came back immediately - white lady sent him. Turned out DN had bought herself some too and sent the boy forward for me to pay. She didn't want to get her money out as the old lady next to her was coughing and eyeing up her watch. No doubt hoping diphtheria would flatten DN and she would have the watch away.
Oh well - I handed his coins over.

And so in 32 degree heat we bounded and crashed and hooted our way off the road to Ooty.

It was all going swimmingly until the climb up the hills. Unable to read due to sheer terror the hilly landscape proved a welcome relief to watching the repeats of one's life every five minutes.

A road sign! Ooty 65KM....looking good.

It was now getting dark  - not that seemed to indicate to the driver we needed any lights.

Hairpin bend....over-take tuk-tuk.
Hairpin bend....over-take tuk-tuk.
Hairpin bend....over-take tuk-tuk.
Hairpin bend....over-take tuk-tuk.
Hairpin bend....over-take tuk-tuk.
Hairpin bend....over-take tuk-tuk.
Hairpin bend....over-take tuk-tuk.
Hairpin bend....over-take tuk-tuk.
Hairpin bend....over-take tuk-tuk.

It started to rain and get cold. The bus heaved and groaned and I was marvelling at the strength of the chap throwing the wheel around - arms like popeye.
Two buses stuck on hairpin - neither giving way, much hooting anf shouting.

Half the road gone - much hallooing and hooting shouting and comings and goings.

Another sign: Ooty 65KM

And another: Ooty 70KM.

We had already learned the numbers on the road signs are merely there for the amusement of the sign writers and bear no relationship to actual distances, directions or locations.

Ooty 55KM

Police Check point. Lady behind me is sick into hanky, tries to hurl it from the window - rebounds and covers window with a fruity tang. Shivaite next to pees himself. Women weep, men curse, children sob and still we climb on into the deepening night.

And lo five hours into the now freezing night we round a curve and we see lights in the valley to our left - not miles away but close - could this be Ooty at last? We get stuck again. This time going down hill for the first time in the journey - so near yet so, so far.
We speed up into brighter still lights....bone shaking terror as we scream past goats and pariah dogs.
All desperate for the loo as we bounce and shake into a town ahead - it's now 9pm - we have been under way since 3.

Now Dear Northerner had arranged this part and after all manner of woe in the Munnar Fawlty towers we had a reservation at the Taj. Comfort, safety and civilisation would be restored at some point. The challenge of course is getting there in one piece.
Our experience of the Taj in Bombay was one of genteel elegance, refined civility and all very pukka and up our street.
We had had enough of rip-offs, dirt, filth, rickety transport and appalling roads and driving.

We were deposited at Piccadilly Circus in Ooty. The rain was leaving rivulets in the dust and brake grime on our legs as we shivered to extract waterproofs from our packs. It felt very much like Yorkshire in November. We were supposed to have escaped this. Garish neon winked through the stinging drops as tuk-tuk drivers hawked inflated prices. When we first arrived in India we laughed up our sleeves at rickshaw drivers ripping off prickly-heated coated indignant Sahibs for a pennies in our money. After a week since Aleppy being charged a pound still felt expensive - but we paid it all the same.

This was a chap reduced the status of some awful back-packer. No howdah to carry me forth, just rain, shit and slowness. Not to what I was accustomed at all. But resolution is all in these matters and a stiff upper lip and a stern resolve works wonders with the natives I have found.
So spattered we were as we chugged up into the mist past lights and cows sheltering from cold in doorways.
Down a dark unmade road. We read of tourists being taken up back roads and robbed - and fearing the Northerner's life and my manly virtue we clung to one another - mostly for warmth mind.

The road opened up to a gate house and a uniformed and turbaned guard peered into the back and stood smartly up and lifted the barrier.
Dropped by a door way in a car-port from the rain we collected our things and trudged into the reception. Soothing yellow lights and a huge vase of lillys adorned the desk. Mustachioed white jacket at the desk looked up and beamed.
'Mr D? We have been expecting you.'
We suddenly felt dirty, ragged and not at all well heeled in such salubrious surrounds.
'Welcome to the Taj, sir - please I will get a boy for your bags - you needn't carry anything here, sir."
A warm glow not unlike peeing yourself on a wetsuit came over us both.
'Table for Dinner sir and a drink at bar first perhaps while the boy runs you a bath and lights a fire in your room?'

Civilisation indeed. After the tribulations of even getting alcohol at all in Kerala let alone any without formaldehyde preservatives - a wine list at all had me soaring to elysium. A cigar humidor with burning embers to light it, a half decent red, a soak and a fire with which to warm DN for bed and you know - it might even have been worth it. The very mention of a bath had the Dear Northerner pink with delight.
Oh the water wasn't as hot as she would have liked - but it had a plug, some salts in a glass jar and our suite really did have a fire. Christmas at last............

Ooty, through a hole in the clouds

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